Summer Sisters return as BAD MOTHERS & NEGLECTFUL WIVES, at Manbites Dog

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In Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives, devised and presented by Summer Sisters, the struggle within the struggle: “Don’t dilute the message,” say the white women, pulling their black sister down. From left, back: Yamila Monge, Rachel Klem, Aleii Hobin. From left, front: Laurie Siegel, Amelia Sciandra, Mina Ezikpe, Emily Hill, Carissa White. Photo: Sylvia Freeman.

 

Time after time, through history, activist women have been labeled “bad mothers and neglectful wives” in vain attempts to shut them up. As often happens with labels and symbols meant to be shaming, this one has been co-opted by the the revolutionistas of Summer Sisters devised theatre group. Their Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives, inspired by January’s Women’s March in Washington, DC, and informed by centuries of women-led movements, plays at Manbites Dog Theater tonight and Saturday, and repeats Sept. 14-16. Directed by Rachel Klem, Emily Hill and Carissa White, this Other Voices series show opens Manbites Dog’s final season of plays.

Summer Sisters is a large and fluid group of theatrical women from the Triangle area, who gather each summer in some configuration to process something important and make a witchy brew–a play–out of their distillations. This year’s work boils out of the hurt, rage, frustration, fury, pain, anger, distrust, and general pissed-offedness of millions of women after the elections of November, 2016 and the long string of assaults and murders of women and their children by police. Did I mention mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?

“I can’t keep quiet/for anyone/not any more.

They may see that monster/they may run away/but I have to do it.

A one-woman riot/I won’t keep quiet/no no/no.”

This manifesto, sung in 9-part harmony, a capella, opens the show. The beauty of the voices of the nine women kneeling, candles cradled between their palms, makes a mockery of the mocking epithet that forms the title, and while there are many sharply drawn scenes of historical and present day feminist struggle, those words sum up the message. Still and always, in different contexts, silence equals death. Or, as in the famous Audre Lorde line quoted in the play, “Your silence will not protect you.”

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Emily Hill and Rachel Klem, as 1913 suffragettes, respond to an attack from the hostile crowd at the grand march toward the White House. Laurie Siegel and Amelia Sciandra stand before a projection from a Take Back the Night march. Photo: Sylvia Freeman.

 

Polemical and sometimes pedagogical, Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives also includes some real soul-searching and some blisteringly funny episodes. When they reprise the old Firing Line TV talk show segment in which William F. Buckley put Phyllis Schlafly and Shirley Chisholm together to talk about the (then still in contention) Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, with Amelia Sciandra portraying Buckley, you may, if you are old enough, laugh out loud–and then cry for the good old days when there was such a thing as an intellectual conservative like Buckley. Funnier still, and mordant, is another song, set to the tune of the Marseillaise: “Rise up you bitches of the motherland…”

Although it could be more smoothly crafted and refined, Bad Mothers is full of raw power and resolve, and makes a fine opening to the final season at Manbites, which came into being as a place for speaking up and acting up and demanding change, respect and equality. Again and again, the characters speak of working for a time in which their daughters will not have to carry on the struggle. (For extra added poignancy, Rachel Klem’s own daughter, Miranda Alguire, stage mananges this show.) I regret the necessity of the message remaining the message, but now hear this:

“We’ve gone too far to stop now. We will get there in the end.”

“We are repeating ourselves again and again–until we are HEARD.”

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MONSTER CAMP: Summer Sisters’ Sweet Skit

The Summer Sisters in MONSTER CAMP at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Jenn Evans.

The Summer Sisters in MONSTER CAMP. Photo: Jenn Evans.

There’s this group–a tribe–a porous-bordered cell–of creative female performance artists in Durham who like to get together in the summer and work out their imaginations on a topic. Last year, Summer Sisters took on daughters and mothers with Alzheimer’s, working from Sarah Leavitt’s graphic journal Tangles: My Mother, Alzheimer’s and Me. This year, “gently led” by the fearless broad-thinking actors Rachel Klem and Tamara Kissane, they started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a way to look at the monsters within and without, and examine the meaning of monstrosity in the psyche and in society. MONSTER CAMP opened at Common Ground Theatre Aug. 28.

The Summer Sisters take their discussions, soul-baring exercises and theatrical experiments as the raw material for their “devised” theatre. In MONSTER CAMP, there are readings, singing, movement, stories, stylized action sequences and one highly dramatic soliloquy (Dierdre Shipman). Each woman wears some version of yoga clothes, remarkable for the jagged red scars stitched here and there. Some of the songs and readings are rounds, with the voices overlapping and circling. In fact, the sense of spiraling deeper informs the entire show. One of the loveliest things about this show is the paradoxical double spiraling–out to the edges of ideas and aloneness, and deeper inward toward acceptance and connection.

But a show it is, with a rather adorable resemblance to skits at camp. There are some bits that don’t work as well as they might, but others that give a jolt of beauty or comprehension. Don’t expect much polish–this work is too fresh to need buffing up. Two more performances remain.

Dierdre Shipman in The Summer Sisters' MONSTER CAMP.  Photo: Jenn Evans.

Dierdre Shipman in The Summer Sisters’ MONSTER CAMP. Photo: Jenn Evans.

 

Fri, Sat, August 29, 30 at 8:00pm
Tickets: $15 (plus tax)-general admission
Reservations: (919) 384-7817
http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/803833

A really late review and an almost-late preview of shows at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre

Two of the Triangle's energetic theatre artists, Katja Hill and Lormarev Jones, outside of Common Ground Theatre, which hosted ROUGH DRAFT. Photo: Rachel Klem.

Two of the Triangle’s energetic theatre artists, Katja Hill and Lormarev Jones, outside of Common Ground Theatre, which hosted ROUGH DRAFT. Photo: Rachel Klem.

ROUGH DRAFT: A Night of New Solos (Common Ground Theatre June 28-29, 2013)

Summer Sisters Presents TANGLES: My Mother, Alzheimer’s and Me (Common Ground Theatre, Aug. 29-31, 2013)

Durham’s theatre scene would be much the poorer had Rachel Klem not come to town. Subtle actress, incisive director, performance space owner and manager, producer, and general creative force, Klem, along with her husband Jeff Alguire (actor, designer, etc) have provided Durham with a small, flexible theatre in which all kinds of surprising and affecting work happens. In June, Common Ground made possible the presentation of works-in-progress by two extremely interesting actor-thinkers, who have written/are writing theater pieces taken directly from their own life experiences.

The monologue never has been my favorite mode of theater, but both DEBRIS, by Katja Hill, and THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK, by Lormarev Jones, were so engaging that I’m forced to reconsider my bias. After all, I’ve been thinking about their shows for two solid months, and still find them intriguing. Both women will be familiar to local theater-goers, and many will have seen Hill’s previous work about the trials and tribulations of becoming an actor. Jones, as far as I know, had not previously presented any of her own writing, but has enriched many productions with her intense presence and gorgeous voice.

Hill took on the universal themes of life, death and stuff. While the presentation left much to be desired (she sat at a table with a notebook, the table forming a barrier between her and the audience), the content was engrossing. Hill’s mother, a Finn who married an American, lived in Sylva, NC. Cancer attacked and advanced rapidly; Hill and her then-boyfriend barely got her back to Finland to die. With what seems to me amazing fortitude, Hill wove together her mother’s stories–her life, her romance, her cancer-on-a-credit-card, her work in the plant department at Walmart, her death and its aftermath–and laced them to her own stories with ribbons of wry humor, sorrow, joy and exasperation. Anyone who has dealt with the plethora of objects left behind by the beloved dead would have gotten the metaphors instantly, but for anyone who hadn’t, Hill had a selection of stuff you just don’t know what the hell to do with for show and tell–and a telling costume. Hill’s a lovely blonde with a natural elegance which she almost disguised in grubby pants, a Walmart employee T-shirt (store number on the back) and a Nordic girl wig with long blonde braids, sloppily covered by a kerchief. Looking a bit like orphan Cinderella in the ashes, she unreeled the silk of a lifetime, opening its twist for us to see the strands, uneven but knotless. Lives are plied together like yarn. Mother’s strand, father’s strand; a third ply for daughter. Mother’s strand attenuates, leaving a snarl of broken fiber, but the spinner picks up another strand–the boyfriend, now the husband, is spun into the twist during the course of the story.

It takes a brave heart and a clear mind to formulate and present art like this, so close to the bone, seesawing between personal sentiment and universal feeling in a delicately balanced spiraling structure. Be on the lookout for DEBRIS when it falls on us again, sparkling like a diamond its own dust.

Lormarev Jones’ THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK was not as highly developed as Hill’s work, but rather more surprising. Maybe 30-year-old sexual virgins are not as rare as I think, but I am sure that there are not many who will get up on stage and tell you all about it. Jones retails some hilarious anecdotes about her upbringing: her mother worked with AIDS patients during the early awful years of the epidemic, when they were all dying. Determined that her children would not die for lack of knowledge, she made sure little Lormarev was informed far beyond the norm for her age group. On top of that, Jones’ grandfather, with whom she lived part of the time, encouraged her in no uncertain terms not to waste her time on boys. On top of that, Jones attended college at Meredith, the Baptist women’s school in Raleigh. The upshot is–she’s a virgin, and pretty much all her acquaintance gives her grief about the fact. Currently, Jones is working toward an MFA in theatre from Sarah Lawrence, and is planning to fully develop THE VIRGIN COOKBOOK as her capstone project for the degree.

In June, it was still rather rough, although the scenes in which she plays her own grandfather were beautifully realized. Jones’ tends to look down while she speaks, breaking eye contact with the audience, which diminishes her strength, but it flares up immediately when she raises her implacable virgin’s eye. She makes a lot of jokes, and never brings up the power ascribed through history to the virgin woman, but this show certainly makes you think about it. There’s a lot to be said in favor of experience, but you can always get that. You can’t ever retrieve innocence, and to have held onto it for 30 years strikes me as somewhat of a modern miracle. This is another show to look for in its next iteration.

And beginning tonight, for three nights only…

13 of the Triangle’s talented women of theatre have gotten together to workshop a piece of performance art based on Sarah Leavitt’s graphic journal TANGLES: MY MOTHER, ALZHEIMER’S AND ME. These “Summer Sisters” are year-round fearless. They take on loving, aging, loving, family, care-giving and did I mention loving even through the forgetting?

Once again, the real live art is at Common Ground. Shows at 8 pm, Aug. 29, 30, 31. $10. Part of the proceeds will go to benefit Alzheimer’s North Carolina.

Reservations: (919) 698-3870 or tickets at the door.

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